Kenneth Branagh's film of The Magic Flute was made in 2006 but is only now being released in the United States. I have no idea why there was such a delay – the film is captivating, and Mozart is well served. Over the years I've seen quite a few of Branagh's films (he's described on the DVD case as "the director of Thor," which is accurate but not adequate), and though I generally liked them (some of them quite a lot) I was really not prepared for the excellence and inventiveness of his Magic Flute. I preferred it to Ingmar Bergman's celebrated film adaptation. Even if, like me, you feel you've seen enough Magic Flutes to tide you over for the next decade, or two, I urge you to check out this one.
As with Bergman's film, this is an adaptation for film of the opera (as opposed to a recording of a stage production). Branagh did the adaptation, as well as directing, and he had the brilliant idea of setting the story in the midst of World War I, the war that broke open the modern world. Before I saw the movie I would have hesitated to declare that a brilliant idea, but the result is completely convincing, and accommodates the familiar story with surprising ease. The setting amid the trenches and the slaughter immediately raises the stakes, and many elements that before had a fairy-tale arbitrariness now make life-and-death sense: the vow of silence, for example, when Tamino cannot tell even Pamina what his mission is. For once I wasn't irritated that he didn't turn to comfort her. Or the trial by fire, when he and Pamina, both holding the flute, actually walk through enemy fire in their quest for peace.
But I shouldn't make the staging sound too literal: though there are some substitutions (the fierce serpent at the beginning is a hissing grenade, which releases a long tail of black smoke), we still have the titular flute and the spell-casting silver bells, and there are elements that evoke Surrealism, one of the several artistic responses to the war: a trench-wall of sandbags sings a chorus; characters fly and bounce and appear in different locations; when Papageno dreams of one day finding a Papagena, he is suddenly in a bright flowery field, and a huge pair of red lips float Magritte-like in front of him, until he suddenly snaps back to reality, where he's in a cell.
The ambiguities of war help explain some of the story's seeming contradictions: who can tell who is good and who is not and why, in the middle of battle? The Three Ladies first appear when the grenade knocks out Tamino; they float down from the night sky, all in wimpled white, like nurses or nuns. Then when they see how handsome the young soldier is, they pull off their headresses and show a lot more cleavage than nuns or nurses generally show. It's amusing, and part of learning how deceptive appearances are, particularly during wartime.
There's a constant tension in the film between the realistic and the magical (between war and peace, you might say). At the beginning as the overture plays a white butterfly flutters in musical time over green fields and then over the trenches and then war planes drop out of the clouds and also start rolling and dipping in time. The three boys appear and disappear and float in air or roll out of chimneys (their white and beige garments showing no sign of the soot billowing out with them) but they also behave like three actual little boys: when they clap their hands over Papageno's mouth, they do it a little too roughly, enjoying the mischief of it. (There are many excellent touches like this in the performances, as when Pamina hastily smooths her hair before seeing Tamino again.)
There's no simple equation of, say, the Queen of the Night with the Germans and Sarastro with the British. She is bent on war, driven by a personal enmity towards Sarastro (as in Bergman's film, he is a former lover of hers). She makes her entrance backlit, astride a tank. As she sings her first aria to Tamino, commanding him to rescue her captured daughter, the camera moves in until her mouth, issuing its sparkler notes, takes up the whole left-hand side of the screen, and as the other tanks in the background slowly move over the horizon, they look as if they are all issuing from her mouth. The movie is full of inventive touches like that.
Sarastro sometimes seems to be a medical man, at other times a military leader. Subtle touches make him more complex than usual: Sarastro is a good man, but how good, ultimately, were any of the men who led the war? One of the mystic signs of wisdom inscribed on the wall of his temple is the famous line from Horace which the British Empire took from the Roman, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (It is sweet and fitting to die for one's fatherland), a reminder of the imperialistic, patriarchal culture of war and patriotism that led to such massive carnage and devastation.
Monostatos is still a dark-skinned man, and initially I was a little surprised that Branagh didn't just change that to avoid the racially-tinged treatment of the character. But it lends some complexity to him; he feels he's victimized because of his skin color (he smashes mirrors as he laments his appearance), and it's a reminder of the imperial era's pervasive racism (he first appears in sort of Indian garb). But this staging doesn't excuse Monostatos or make him too sympathetic; he still tries to rape Pamina. There are darker-skinned men who have positions of authority in Sarastro's army. The crowd that supports Sarastro contains many different types of people (as many as were ruled by the British Empire), and I felt this conveyed the universal import of the story better than Bergman's device of showing "faces of many lands" during the overture.
This is the only Flute I've seen in which the very end, the final attack against Sarastro by the Queen of the Night, Monostatos, and the Three Ladies, doesn't feel sort of arbitrary. Amid the celebrations of the triumph and subsequent wedding of Tamino and Pamina, the Queen and company scale the walls of Sarastro's tower. Sarastro tries to help her but the Queen's rage and despair are so great she chooses death rather than his help. This is not only psychologically plausible, it also helps complete the theme of suicide – both Pamina and then Papageno finally resist the urge to kill themselves (though he's never quite as serious about it), but the Queen cannot bring herself to reconcile with her enemy.
Yes, this is an opera, so music must have the final word, and fortunately the visual felicities and thought-provoking staging are in service of an excellent performance. James Conlon conducted, pacing and shaping the music beautifully (and I believe I also saw him in a Hitchcock-like cameo as an officer in the trenches, comforting a sharpshooter). Joseph Kaiser as Tamino really dominates the story as a leading man in a way that stage Taminos usually don't – and here the wartime setting definitely helps; as I have previously noted, Tamino is the most hilariously unmanly of all opera heroes, but there's something really at stake in what he does here, and the chivalrous idealism that motivates his actions movingly evokes the high-minded romanticism of many of the young men killed in the war. The charismatic Kaiser is an excellent actor as well as a singer of warmth and sensitivity.
Benjamin Jay Davis as Papageno also gained from the wartime setting; he's still a bird-catcher (he first shows up with a canary used to test for poison gas) and still fun-loving, but Davis brings out a wistful side that sometimes get shortchanged when it's all about Papageno guzzling booze (here his drink of choice is beer, not wine, which shows how careful the adaptation is with details; of course a working-class man like Papageno would drink beer, not wine). Rene Pape brings his sonorous authority to Sarastro. The women are just as strong; Amy Carson is a lovely Pamina (when Tamino first sees her portrait, he imagines dancing with her, in a swirly swoony black-and-white dance that epitomizes youthful romanticism). Lyubov Petrova brings surprising nuance to the Queen of the Night. The men in particular had clear diction, though it's probably also more difficult to understand words sung by higher voices. Generally all the soloists are clear. Ensembles are more difficult to understand, which is to be expected. I did wish the DVD had the option of subtitles, though in general they weren't necessary.
The excellent English libretto is by Stephen Fry – no filler, no banging rhymes, no straining for effect; mostly just good straightforward English rhymes, and the right balance of jokiness and seriousness in the dialogue. I had to laugh when Papageno rescues Pamina and tells her about Tamino who loves her after seeing her portrait, and she says, "But where is he?" I always wonder that too during that scene. But then she and Papageno sing that all who are deceitful and treacherous should be punished, and we see the battle lines and the trenches of a war brought about by deceit and treachery and foolishness, with all the attendant waste and slaughter of a generation, and I found myself, to my surprise, bursting into tears.
The film is being released in theaters Sunday 9 June, with a reprise screening Tuesday 11 June. In some theaters the Sunday screening will be followed by a webcast Q-and-A session from London with Branagh (check www.emergingpictures.com to check for showtimes and theaters near you). The film is also being released on DVD on Tuesday 11 June, and is available on Amazon and the other usual sources.